I am very happy to be writing about one of my favorite westerns. I am not an enormous fan of the genre but what I like, I really like.
It helps, of course, that the movie stars three of my favorite actors of the era: Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark and Anthony Quinn. Seeing a pre-Trek DeForest Kelley doesn’t hurt either. And the addition of silent leading man Richard Arlen in a supporting role… Well, I am a very happy camper.
Classic westerns are often associated with singing cowboys and simplistic morality but it is worth mentioning that there were dark, adult entries to the genre from the very start of the feature film era. In fact, silent star William S. Hart built his entire career on them. Taking the most idealistic of film genres, white-hatted heroes and all, and layering it with deep moral ambiguity and sinister themes created thrilling motion picture art.
My trio of sound favorites– High Noon (1952), 3:10 to Yuma (1957), and Warlock— all subverted audience expectations as to how “proper” western heroes and villains were to behave. Not being a fan of either John Wayne or musical cowpokes, this subversion is just what I like!
(In case you were wondering, my runner-up favorite westerns are Ramrod, Support Your Local Sheriff and Silverado)
Warlock is the interwoven story of three men discovering their true identities. It questions the nature of frontier justice and the vigilantism that was glamorized in the popular view of the west. And it’s just plain entertaining.
Here’s Henry Fonda extolling the film’s virtues.
After the review of the film, I will cover Richard Arlen’s career, from silent leading man to sound star to supporting player.
Warlock has an interesting plot structure that is best described as recurring cycles of violence, each cycle focusing on a different combination of characters. The story revolves around three men, all approaching law and order from a different angle.
Henry Fonda plays Clay Blaisedell, a legendary gunman who makes his living by cleaning up towns. He sees himself as a paladin of sorts, taking care of messes that are too big for the law to handle. While he has no real legal enforcement powers, the town council will allow him to do what needs to be done.
Anthony Quinn is Tom Morgan, Clay’s best friend and the guy who quietly does the dirty work in the background. He couldn’t care less about the law but cleaning up towns is good money and it builds prestige for Clay.
Richard Widmark is Johnny Gannon, who starts the film as a lowly henchman of the villain, has a crisis of conscience and ends up becoming deputy sheriff. He believes in the law and wants to erase his past by enforcing it.
Do I smell conflict? Yes, I do!
The town of Warlock is being terrorized by a gang of renegade cowboys, who regularly shoot up the place, drive out the law and slaughter anyone who crosses them. The gang is led by Abe (the usually squeaky-clean Tom Drake), a ruthless character who is not above back-shooting and ambushes. Warlock splits between support for Clay’s vigilante style and Gannon’s law-and-order approach. The plot is further complicated when Abe declares that he is the law and intends to take down both Clay and Gannon.
Richard Arlen plays one of the few citizens who supports Gannon from the start. DeForest Kelley plays the most likable member of the villainous gang, more mischievous than evil.
There are also juicy parts for the ladies. Acclaimed tough girl Dorothy Malone plays Lily, a soiled dove who used to go with Morgan but now wants… Clay dead? You see, she knows that Morgan cares for Clay more than anything else and killing Clay is the only sure way to hurt him. However, her plans are derailed when she falls for Gannon’s simple, sweet wooing.
Then there is Jessie (Dolores Michaels), an influential townswoman who finds Clay’s mercenary life repulsive. Later, she revises her opinion and falls for him only to realize that his way of life is rapidly dying.
This is a true ensemble movie and it works brilliantly. Films with three or more leads often become unfocused and confusing but that is not the case here. All three of the Warlock leads are wrestling with the same moral dilemmas of law, order and violence, which gives the film a core for the characters to revolve around. Is the law a means to an end, too weak for the real world or something that needs protection to thrive? Is violence necessary to make your point? At what point has so-called western justice gone too far?
While Warlock has all the trappings of a traditional western (saloons, fallen women, the law), it manages to step out of its own genre and cast a critical eye on the glamorization of vigilante violence inherent to most cowboy pictures. I should add that this is never done in a sanctimonious manner. Rather, the audience is shown viewpoints of violence and vigilantism from the various characters and we watch them grown as people and slowly change their attitudes.
All the plotting would be for nothing if the acting was not up to par. Fortunately, the talented cast is more than up to the challenge. The complicated relationship between Clay and Morgan is expertly played by Fonda and Quinn. Morgan is obsessed with Clay but he also nurses a secret pocket of disdain for him. You see, he knows that he is handier with a revolver. He allows Clay to have the glory and then revels in his generosity. Clay, meanwhile, is an icy figure. Each town is the same, each woman is the same. The problem is that he is running out of towns.
Richard Widmark had, by this time, built a career that darted between dark-souled heroes and twitching psychopaths. I have a great fondness for his monsters but he does some very good work in Warlock. Gannon was on the wrong side of the law because he was too weak to stand up to Abe. As the violence escalates, though, he cannot stomach what he sees and finds the courage to break off association with his old gang. Widmark is intense, of course, but he also displays great vulnerability as the newly heroic Gannon.
Warlock is a movie that can be appreciated on may levels. You can enjoy it as a western, a subversive western or as a smart character study. The town of Warlock opened a Pandora’s box when they hired out their law enforcement. The consequence of their action results in one of the finest westerns of the 1950’s.
Richard Arlen’s career is usually summed up with two films: Wings and Island of Lost Souls. This is a shame since, while both films deserve praise, they do not really display Arlen to best advantage.
Grandly named Sylvanus Richard van Mattimore when he was born in 1899, Arlen trained with the Royal Canadian Flying Corps during World War One, though he did not see combat.
He signed on with Paramount Pictures and steadily worked his way from extra to leading man. His flying experience won him a lead role in the flying picture, Wings. Director William Wellman wanted his actors to really fly and Arlen was more than happy to oblige. And if the rivalry between Arlen’s character and Buddy Rogers’ boy-next-door seemed real, it’s because it was. That boxing match? Real punches.
(Richard Arlen got on considerably better with Jobyna Ralston, his leading lady in the film. They were married from 1927 to 1946.)
Arlen reunited with Wellman for the hobo drama Beggars of Life, which co-starred Louise Brooks, pre-Germany. While Wings assured Arlen screen immortality, Beggars of Life ended up damaging his reputation. Arlen had worked with Louise Brooks in Rolled Stockings and it is safe to say that there was no love lost. His performance in Beggars was just so-so but Brooks did not think much of Arlen as an actor in general and was not afraid to share that opinion.
Now I’m not here to mediate an 85 year-old-plus acting feud but, fortunately, I don’t have to. Richard Arlen was paired with Bebe Daniels for a pair of romantic comedies and the second of them, Feel My Pulse, survives. It’s safe to say that Arlen steals the show from both Daniels and a pre-fame William Powell. He is charming, mouthy, brash– everything you could want in a reporter going undercover in a gang of rum runners. Ladies and gentlemen, the boy can act!
Arlen starred in the silent 1929 version of The Four Feathers and then made a successful talkie transition with an important role in The Virginian that same year. He specialized in westerns, which showcased his smiling charm, though he did occasionally work in mysteries and he played the Cheshire Cat in the 1933 live action Alice in Wonderland. Arlen the romantic lead in Island of Lost Souls. Arlen had trouble with dull, sincere heroes and he really didn’t stand a chance with Charles Laughton on one side and a panther girl on the other.
Arlen worked steadily in leading film roles through the 30’s and 40’s. In the 50’s, he began to play supporting roles in movies and television. He stayed busy until his death in 1976.
I suppose I should make a confession. The first time I saw young Richard Arlen onscreen, well, I guess a GIF best illustrates my reaction.
So, say what you want about his acting. I’m here for the view.